As Good As It Gets
Reviewed in January 1998
Director: James L. Brooks. Cast: Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt, Greg Kinnear, Cuba Gooding Jr., Shirley Knight, Skeet Ulrich, Lupe Ontiveros, Yeardley Smith, Randall Batinkoff, Jamie Kennedy, Justin Herwick, Maya Rudolph. Screenplay: Mark Andrus and James L. Brooks.

Photo © 1997 TriStar Pictures
My memory of James L. Brooks' As Good As It Gets inclines me to liken it to a Baskin Robbins store. The whole enterprise has been designed to please luxuriantly, and if all you want is something sweet, you are unlikely to be disappointed. At the same time, the film's extravagant wish to satisfy the tastes of any possible audience results in an array of scenes that run through 31 tones and flavors, from slapstick comedy to social drama, rainbow sherbet to Rocky Road. Many of these scenes stand just fine on their own, but the connecting material is flimsy and their sum total fairly unconvincing.

Jack Nicholson stars as Melvin Udall, an obsessive-compulsive romance writer who liberally spouts sexist, racist, and homophobic epithets through any social interaction. Thankfully for the rest of the world, he keeps his number of public appearances low, squatting his apartment and defending it like sacred ground against anyone who comes knocking.

There's plenty of material right inside that thumbnail characterization from which Nicholson and the audience can move into innumerable different directions; Melvin lends himself equally well to a serious character study, a broad farce, or a sort of reverse My Fair Lady where someone, most likely a sharp-tongued woman, can pull him out of his coarse, asocial husk. By the early scenes of As Good As It Gets, however, Brooks and co-writer Mark Andrus demonstrate once and for all that, rather than selecting and pursuing one of these possible routes, they would prefer to be all things to all people, or at least die trying.

Therefore we have introductory scenes such as Nicholson throwing a neighbor's yipping, ugly-cute dog down a trash chute, his funny (angry?) confrontation with Simon (Greg Kinnear), the artist next door who owns the dog, and a second angry (funny?) run-in between Nicholson and Simon's agent, essentially a cameo for Jerry Maguire's Cuba Gooding Jr. The scenes seem intended to achieve a blend of the comic and the serious that will embody the funny/sad/horrifying experience of living in an anonymous New York apartment. Unfortunately, the comedy of the comic scenes is so broad, the details of Nicholson's disorder so gimmicky, and the graveness of other incidents—Kinnear is robbed and beaten, for example—that the blending of tones never happens. Brooks and Andrus take each scene to such an extreme that none of them fit together very well. Nicholson and Kinnear are extremely well-cast, and they navigate the script with craftsmanlike finesse, but their efforts only keep As Good As It Gets rolling along; they can't get it to take off like it wants to.

Praise God for Helen Hunt, who shows up soon as Carol Connelly, the harried, sad-eyed waitress at Melvin's favorite café. Carol is the only person on the premises (on any premises, we might infer) who can handle Melvin's mercurial habits and viperish temper, so she has already won the decidedly dubious honor of being the only waitress from whom he will order. Hunt is the saving grace of the movie, delivering a warm, lived-in, inclusive performance that not only hits all the right notes, but operates from such a rich, fertile core of humanity that all of her speeches and actions seem to spring credibly from the same woman. She alone triumphs fully over the movie's tendencies toward artifice and disconnectedness and carries everyone else in the film to their best work in their scenes with her.

The film itself is so much more interested in following these three characters than in organizing a traceable plot that it seems redundant to recount the action here. Suffice it to say that As Good As It Gets tries on several different hats as a medical drama, odd-couple romance, liberal plea for compassion, and, in the end, a road movie. Like most road movies—an example from the current year was Bob Gosse's festival hit Niagara, Niagara—this one never offers much evidence as to why these characters take this trip together. Their grouping in a car heading down the East Coast is a paragon of circumstantial plotting, clearly necessary only because Brooks wants us to watch his protagonists interact with one another, and observe what they learn from each other, and what consensus will form about whose values need changing, and who can help them do that (whew!).

Anyone who's been awake for the film's first hour and a half should have no trouble forecasting who is the teacher and who are the students once this all happens. And again, whatever the shortcomings and strains in the script, each performer hews comfortably and likably to their role, so As Good As It Gets remains diverting and pleasant throughout. Nicholson is stuck with the most predictable arc—in a Hollywood film, no character can remain this hateful this long, particularly not among such attractive co-stars—but he does find clever ways to conceal just how mechanical and un-human a creation Melvin Udall is. Kinnear's character confesses a great deal about his homosexuality and the family tensions that resulted from it, and the actor achieves an admirable state of woundedness and defeated pride. Hunt just blossoms, pitching Carol's intelligence and compassion at just the right levels for each new revelation, and Brooks and Andrus play fair in letting her resist the inevitable romantic union, balking at Melvin's speeches when their florid language does not seem supported by genuine feeling.

Perhaps, though, it is Carol's (and Hunt's) ongoing commitment to emotional honesty and fair play that make it increasingly difficult to ignore the film's encroaching patterns of sentimentality and uninspired developments. Brooks' screen efforts genuinely follow the pattern along which he has cut As Good As It GetsTerms of Endearment and Broadcast News both put characters first and story second, finding their stories in the ways each character came to understand the others—but his latest effort is stuck in a gear-shifting sitcom rut that Terms occasionally struggled with and even the superlative Broadcast News fell into by the end. Perhaps these personalities—the obsessive-compulsive misanthrope who secretly authors pulp romances, the gay painter whose life falls apart but whose dog is reeeally cute—are too obviously laden with attention-grabbing, "quirky" characteristics to transcend the limits of the storytelling; perhaps there's no plausible story to tell about a bigot, an artist, and a single-mother waitress that isn't a little schematic, but I think that argument lets the filmmakers too easily off the hook. After all, it's the TV-trained actress who does the best job at making this film feel honestly cinematic, proving that when conviction and discipline are present, anything can happen.

"What if this is as good as it gets?" Melvin bellows as he leaves his therapist's office in huff early in the movie. We ask ourselves the same question over and over again through the first hour, serviceably entertained but naggingly distressed that this talented cast and promising premise is never going to launch off its own thin platform of one-liners and contrivance. By the second hour, we have stopped asking, aware that we are getting what we paid for, no more, no less. See As Good As It Gets particularly if you want to be wowed by Hunt's excellent, natural work, or else stay home and wait for her to be cast in a film that more fully deserves her. Brooks was smart to pick her and the others to drive this vehicle; I just wish he'd given them someplace specific to go. C+


Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture
Best Actress: Helen Hunt
Best Actor: Jack Nicholson
Best Supporting Actor: Greg Kinnear
Best Original Screenplay: Mark Andrus & James L. Brooks
Best Film Editing: Richard Marks
Best Original Score (Musical/Comedy): Hans Zimmer

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture(Musical/Comedy)
Best Director: James L. Brooks
Best Actress (Musical/Comedy): Helen Hunt
Best Actor (Musical/Comedy): Jack Nicholson
Best Supporting Actor: Greg Kinnear
Best Screenplay: Mark Andrus & James L. Brooks

Other Awards:
Screen Actors Guild Awards: Best Actress (Hunt); Best Actor (Nicholson)
Writers Guild of America: Best Original Screenplay
National Board of Review: Best Actor (Nicholson); Best Supporting Actor (Kinnear)
Satellite Awards: Best Picture, Musical/Comedy; Best Actress, Musical/Comedy (Hunt); Best Actor, Musical/Comedy (Nicholson)

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